Alexa’s Growing Pains, Pt. 2: Connected Home Device Problems

Click here to read my first Alexa’s Growing Pains post; it explains how and why, as Alexa’s vocabulary and capabilities grow, commands that used to work may stop working.

Been having some problems with your Connected Home commands lately? Alexa no longer recognizing device and group names she recognized a week or two ago?


Smart Appliances


Don’t Worry, These Fails Mean Connected Home Is Getting Better
Did you read the Part 1 post? If not I strongly recommend you check it out before reading this one, because it provides some important background information you’ll need in order to understand today’s post. If you just can’t be bothered, this excerpt gets to the heart of the matter:

If you’re only allowed to order “cupcakes” and can’t specify the type, a command of “order cupcakes” will do. But once the ability to specify chocolate, vanilla, carrot cake and red velvet cupcakes is rolled out, “order cupcakes” won’t work anymore unless there’s a default cupcake type or types set up for when the user orders cupcakes with the old “order cupcakes” command. The system now expects and requires a command like “order chocolate cupcakes”.

A certain level of Connected Home functionality has been there from the start with Echo and Alexa, and as the list of supported devices keeps getting longer so do consumers’ wish lists for improvements in this area.


Heavy Weather


Reserved Keywords: Necessary, and Not Evil
A developer contact of mine says Alexa engineers who develop Connected Home functionality are currently hard at work on some big improvements to Connected Home. However, part of that process involves creating new “reserved keywords” to support new commands.

Keywords are kind of like shortcuts that point Alexa in the direction of a specific type of content (e.g., music, news report, etc.) or function (e.g., timer, alarm, etc.), and reserved keywords are the ones assigned by Amazon to specific Alexa functions or types of content.

For example, the reserved keyword “weather” tells Alexa the user wants to hear a weather report. The user can issue the command in a variety of ways (“Weather report,” “What’s the weather like today?”, “What’s the current weather?”, “What’s the weather going to be like this weekend?” et cetera), but the reserved keyword “weather” tells Alexa the request has to do with weather reports.

There also happens to be a band called Weather Report, and their music is available on Amazon. But currently, if you ask Alexa to “Play Weather Report,” she’ll read you the current weather report for your area. You must include the keyword “music” to get around the keyword “weather”. “Play music by Weather Report,” clues Alexa in that you’re not interested in meteorological conditions, you want to play music.

Taking it a step further: some of Weather Report’s music is in the Prime Music catalog, but not all. If you want Alexa to limit playback to only the music in the Prime catalog, you can insert the “Prime” keyword: “Play Prime Music by Weather Report.”


LIFX multicolor


Getting Back To Smart Home…
The newly-reserved Connected Home keywords are creating a problem for people who were already using those words in the device and group names they created when they set up their Connected Home devices.

Anyone who’s just now creating their custom device and group names may find that entering one of the reserved keywords will result in an error message and they’ll be prompted to create a different name. But some of those who previously created their custom names and included the newly-reserved keywords are finding Alexa no longer recognizes the names.


Funko Pop Dark Knight


Avoiding Future Keyword Conflicts
Obviously it’s impossible to know which keywords may become reserved in future Alexa development, but it’s still not hard to avoid using words that are prime candidates to become keywords someday. You just have to be a little more creative.

1. Avoid using brand names (e.g., Philips), product names (e.g., LIFX Color 1000) or product line names (e.g., Hue) in your custom names.

2. Avoid using common Alexa action verbs (e.g., play, read, start, stop, pause, skip, etc.) in your custom names.

3. When creating custom group and device names, go with highly personalized names with elements that make it very unlikely they’ll be used as as keywords in the future. For example, the generic “bedroom” is obvious keyword fodder, but “Batcave” isn’t. If, “Turn on the Batcave lights,” isn’t quite your speed, try shortening “bedroom” to “room” and including the name of the room occupant. For example, I have two LIFX bulbs in two different bedrooms; I use “April’s room” and “Aidan’s room” for Alexa to distinguish between them.


Keywords Aren’t The Whole Story
As I explained in my first Alexa’s Growing Pains post, when very basic and simple functionality is expanded to handle more complexity, it’s to be expected that many of the basic/simple commands will be replaced by new versions that allow for more specific information or directions to be included in the command. When that happens the older, simpler commands may not work anymore.

Finally, it’s important to remember that any hub-based Connected Home devices are going to be more prone to bugs and problems than those that don’t rely on a hub, simply because there are more parts in the Connected Home equation with a hub-based system. A weakened or dropped WiFi signal, hub software update, router software update, smart device software/firmware update, Alexa update, or switching Internet Service Provider are just some of the many things that can cause problems in a hub-based system. This is why I consider hub-based systems to be “bleeding edge” tech and don’t have one in my own home.

Hub-based smart home systems keep getting better, but anyone who’s already using one should consider him- or herself an early adopter and expect a certain amount of inconvenience, tinkering and downtime will be part and parcel of using that system.


Be patient, and consider changing any of your Connected Home device or group names that rely on likely keywords.


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